So now Vladimir Horowitz is making it to the White House and to television in one bound. The WETA broadcast of the great pianist's performance a week from tonight will no doubt help accelerate what has turned into a virtual epidemic of culture on TV.
This is just your obscure little arts programming - we're talking about the biggies, the box-office luminaries of the performing arts: Luciano Pavarotti, the Metropolitan Opera, Beverly Sills, the New York City Ballet, Andre Watts, the Chicago Symphony.
This is all to the good, is it not? We're raising the level of arts appreciation by unprecedented leaps and bounds, we're spreading the fruits of creativity unto every unwashed cranny, we're on our way to becoming a nation of cultural sophisticates.
But is this what's actually going on, or are we being lulled into confusing uniquity with enlightenment? What may be overlooked is that the cultural tide wave has its own dangers. In particular, it makes it easy to equate quantity with quality, access with assimilation, exposure with understanding.
Here in Washington, for instance, American Ballet Theater can pack them into the Kennedy Center with its superstars and glossy production values. But the seeming growth in dance appreciation is skin-deep. Other troupes, even those of such well-known figures as Martha Graham or Paul Taylor - who have contributed far more on the creative side than anything ABT has given us in the past five years - still have trouble filling houses.
There's a worse danger in the new era of artistic plenty. The arts themselves may be pressured into putting popularity ahead of all other goals including esthetic worth. This is major peril indeed.
For once the arts begin courting popular acceptance as a primary aim, once artists start to feel they must be loved equally by all and try to appeal to every consumer no matter how indifferent or ill-prepared, then they may be giving up the one distinction that makes them treasurable in the first place - those privileged insights and visions that are never easy either to arrive at or to comprehend.
In which case the arts will cease to be repositories of humanity's deepest responses to life, and deteriorate into mare titillation.
here are recent, disturbing signs that this has begun to happen. Ask yourself what plays, films, musical compositions, dance works of the last half decade seem likely to have any claims on the attention of posterity, or even which of them ever intended more than momentary diversion, and see the paltry collection you come up with. It may be a temporary lull we're going through, a sop to a public weary of the belligerent obscurities of the art of the '60s. It's alarming all the same.
It's a truism that a democratic society is obliged to multiply the opportunities for its citizens to imbibe and participate in the arts to as large an extent as possible - a goal that remains far from fulfillment in this country despite the magic of electronic communications. The notoriously inferior status of the arts in school curricula is proof enough.
But before we rejoice too wildly about TV's power to redress this situation, we should reflect on TV's equally potent ability to homogenize everything that falls into the lens, and to depress standards as well.
Television not only seeks the lowest common denominator, it also tends to smooth out all perceptual distinctions of value or style. Everything we see on TV becomes part of the incessant parade of tabloid imagery. The medium is like one big talk show, and in the procession of guests from Evel Knievel to Tennessee Williams, from Farrah Fawcett-Majors to Mikhail Baryshnikov, from Don Rickles to Artur Rubinstein, television notes no difference.
Whatever the "program," it must be geared toward instant gratification, untaxing intellectual content and a trading in the ephemera of gossip, personally and stardom.
The result is that the medium, as McLuhan tried to tell us, often engulfs the message. Substance gives way before surface, and less easily digestible material - such as the arts - must be specially "packaged" for mass consumption.
A glamorous clebrity "host" is practically de rigueur, particularly on commercial broadcasts, and frequently the event or performance is larded with explanations or interview that do more to trivialize then enhance the experience. The NBC telecast of the Bolshoi Ballet's "Nutcracker" last Christmas, encumbered with Betty Ford's stilted presence and an embarrassingly simpleminded annotation, was a particularly excruiciating example.
There will always be some who will resist, with varying success, TV's imperatives. George Balanchine obviously made sure he wouldn't have his works seen on American RV (he'd had a bad prior experience with German broadcasting) except on his terms, and without compromise of their esthetic character, as both the recent, live "Coppelia" and the two Balanchine installments of the "Dance in America" series showed. But not all artists are Balanchines, and few can afford to be martyrs to integrity where allure of TV is concerned.
A famous critic once asserted that "all art aspires to the condition of music," by which he meant that pure form was a universal ideal. In our own time, it might be more truly said that all culture aspires to the consumerism of television. One doesn't get something for nothing, even in the arts. The price the arts pay for accessibility, on TV as in the theater, is being vulnerable to vulgarization and superficiality. For art's sake and ours, we had best be aware of it.